New government must address prisons crisis 'within days', think tank warns

Overcrowding is down to sustained mismanagement, rather than unforeseen circumstances, IfG says
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The incoming government will have “just days” to avert a major crisis in the prison service, with cells almost full, the Institute for Government has warned.

Failures by successive justice secretaries and prime ministers to address “predictable consequences of the long-term trend for lengthier sentences” is to blame for the emergency, according to the think tank’s latest report, The crisis in prisons: What is facing the next government, and how can it start to fix it?

There are around 87,000 people in UK prisons – up 13% just in the last three years – a number that is predicted to hit 99,300 by the end of next year. The Ministry of Justice’s prison-building programme will create around 4,400 new places – “nowhere close to housing the extra 12,000 prisoners”, the IfG said.

Action to address flaws in the criminal justice system – including sentencing delays introduced at the end of last year as prisons neared capacity – has been inadequate, according to the think tank. The crisis is down to “sustained mismanagement, rather than unforeseen circumstances”, it said.

With no time to implement longer-term solutions – such as revising sentencing policy, expanding prison capacity, or offering more options for community sentences – the next government must make rapid decisions on how to free up thousands of prison places, the IfG said.

Today’s report coincides with a report in the i that officials are considering a "one-in, one-out” system to ease overcrowding, with prisons just days away from being full, and comes just days after the Prison Governers' Association warned the criminal-justice system was "on the precipice of failure".

The report suggests a handful of options that it says would pose “low risk in terms of both public protection and miscarriages of justice” – including lowering the threshold for automatic release for most offenders from 50% through their sentence to 40-45%.

This option, which the IfG says is “likely to be necessary to deliver the sufficient space in the available time even if other options are also used”, would not apply to serious violent or sexual offenders.

Other options include introducing a “queuing system” for immediate custodial sentences, where lower-risk offenders start their sentence under house arrest until a prison space becomes available; or allowing sentences up to three years – up from two – to be suspended. This would mean offenders can avoid prison if they meet certain conditions and do not commit any further offences. 

The think tank also suggests reducing or removing supervision post-release for offenders serving sentences under 12 months, which it said would “substantially cut the number of recalls”.

It notes that in the last few years, an increase in the number of people recalled to prison has contributed significantly to the growth in prisoner numbers.

Another major driver has been an 84% rise in the number of people on remand – those who have been imprisoned while waiting for a court hearing. People on remand now account for almost 20% of the total prison population, with two thirds of them yet to be convicted of a crime.

The IfG puts this down to the growing backlog in the criminal courts, particularly the crown court, meaning that people are waiting longer for hearings.

The report acknowledges that some of the challenges facing prisons ”would have been difficult to see coming”. The pandemic “unquestionably” worsened the already-growing crown court backlog, and recall rates had remained stable between 2016 and 2018 before rising rapidly.

“However, the core of the problem lies in the longer-term trend for lengthier sentences and these were foreseen, and indeed predicted for years in the government’s annual prison population projections,” it says.

“Prisons in 2024 are in a state of emergency, but one that has been brewing for years. Successive justice secretaries and prime ministers have chosen not to address the drivers of the crisis; some have added to them,” it continues.

“Since 2010, budgets have been cut and supply of places underdelivered, while sentences have continued to grow. And since at least 2020, the government’s own prison population projections have implied that prisons would suffer a severe capacity crisis without corrective [action]. That did not happen.”

While taking immediate action to stave off the immediate crisis will be critical, the report warns that the new government will need a long-term strategy to deal with the ongoing pressures on the criminal justice system. “The emergency measures set out in this paper will only buy so much time,” it says.

Cassia Rowland, IfG senior researcher and the author of the report, said: “The new government will not have the luxury of time to decide how to respond to the crisis in prisons. Current emergency measures are both risky and insufficient.

“Implementing these short-term options – perhaps within days of the general election – is absolutely critical to avoid a looming emergency and to win the breathing space needed to develop longer-term solutions.”

A government spokesperson said: “The police and prison service have long established processes to manage short-term capacity issues and the civil service is working closely with partners across the justice system to make sure we have the prison places needed to keep people safe.”

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